Innovation

Virtual reality for business: The smart person's guide

From product demos to 360 tours, brands are already putting virtual reality to good use. Here's what businesses need to know about VR.

Image: Oculus

Virtual reality is one of the most talked-about new technologies in present time. This guide is an introduction to not only what VR is, but how it's relevant to businesses, with the intent to steer decision makers away from jumping on the bandwagon and toward finding value in its use.

Executive summary

  • What is it? Virtual reality refers to an immersive environment, frequently generated by a computer, that fills most of a user's field of vision.
  • Why does it matter? Beyond being an "it" technology for gaming and entertainment, VR has potential within a broad range of industries from healthcare to education.
  • Who does this affect? In the business world, virtual reality mostly affects external-facing efforts—customers and clients. Think marketing and sales more so than internal tools for getting work done. So far.
  • When is this happening? Businesses are already using virtual reality to make presentations, demo products, give tours, and the like. Interest will only increase in the months to come.
  • How do I get it? It depends on your needs, but virtual reality devices span a spectrum, from the relatively-cheap Google Cardboard, which uses a smartphone as a display, to the higher-end VR rigs like the consumer Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, which will be available in the spring and summer of 2016, respectively.

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What is virtual reality?

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The concept of virtual reality has been around for decades. As far back as the 1960s, pioneers like Mort Heilig and Ivan Sutherland sought to combine the real world with an artificial one. Over the years, there have been waves and troughs in interest and feasibility. The underpinning, though, is a technology that lets users interact with an immersive, simulated world.

A lack of computing power, as well as sky-high costs for parts, have created massive barriers to the development of the technology. It's only recently that the tech is good enough to cut down on problems with lag, resolution, power, and more.

The turning point, or impetus for this new wave, is commonly thought to be Oculus founder Palmer Luckey's Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift. For the first time in years, it seemed possible that VR could happen, and that it wouldn't cost tens of thousands of dollars.

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Why does virtual reality matter?

Virtual reality and hype have a long-standing relationship. However, at this point in time, there's a mad rush on to figure out the best hardware and software for VR. Everyone's interested, and everyone's looking for that killer use case.

For businesses, this matters because at some point, someone will raise the question: "Is there anything we can do with VR?"

VR matters because where there's interest, investment, and movement, there's potential. In fact, Goldman Sachs projects that virtual reality could be an $80 billion industry by 2025. That potential hinges on your specific business needs, but professionals in fields from medicine, to architecture, to sales, to education are finding creative uses that improve their practices and, sure, get some attention for using an innovative new technology.

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Who does this affect?

VR is seeping into a variety of different industries. Many of the most visible areas are client or customer-facing. Businesses are finding ways to communicate the value of their products through VR with projects like product demos, 360 tours, presentations, and more.

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When is this happening?

Now. Every week seems to bring more announcements regarding organizations and institutions jumping on the VR bandwagon. Google, for example, has shifted from the unassuming Google Cardboard first handed out two years ago to making moves toward a VR division and a standalone headset. The point here is not so much to blindly join in, but to be aware that a lot is changing very quickly, and right now.

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How do I get it?

This depends on what your business needs. Your interests might be as simple as creating a short 360 video, uploading it to YouTube 360, and using Google Cardboard to view it. Or, the higher end might be more of use or interest and require consultation with an agency or studio.

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About

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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